I recently received an email from a reader that contained an excellent question: "Do you have any Subject Line templates/best practices for prospecting emails?" 

(Note: to hone your emailing skills, sign up for my free weekly newsletter.)

Here are some guidelines, based partly on my own experience and partly from published research:

1. Make the subject line simple. There are several reasons why this is true.  First, busy people get a LOT of emails and usually decide which ones to open based upon a quick scan of the list of messages that have recently arrived.

Since they're not actually reading the Subject Lines, a Subject Line that requires the recipient to consciously think about its meaning is unlikely to be opened.  Here are some examples from emails I've received over the past couple of days:


Subject: Ernesto Zedillo to Chair 21st Century Council of Berggruen Institute on Governance


Subject: The "Call Me Back After the Holidays" Stall

2. Make the subject line short. A short Subject Line makes it more likely that the entire Subject Line will appear on the list and not be cut off mid sentence.  The two examples below are exactly as they appeared in my inbox:


Subject: Webinar: Register Now to Learn How...


Subject: You've Been Promoted, Now What?

According to the email vendor MailChimp (which I do not use but which has good information), emails are more likely to be opened if the Subject Line is less than 50 characters. I never use subject lines more than 40 characters.

3. Use a pre-tested subject line. The Internet in general and your own website in particular are excellent test beds for what interests people enough to click on it.  Using the title of a popular blog post (yours or somebody else's) as your Subject Line almost guarantees a high open rate.

As many of you know, I write and send a free weekly newsletter by email.  I have never gotten less than a 25% open rate and sometimes achieve more than 33% (anyone in the business will tell you that's really good.)

I credit this to the fact that my Subject Lines are almost always based on the most popular blog post of the past week.  For example, here are the five newsletter titles that got my highest open rate with a link to the original post:

If you click on the links, you'll notice that all of these posts received a large amount of "Shares" which is why I used them in the Subject Line of my newsletter.

4. Avoid words that recipients hate. Your email won't get read if it's caught by a SPAM filter.  Most people know some of the words that trigger filters, like "FREE" and "CIALIS," but few people realize that there are actually about 100 of these words.  Here's a comprehensive list.

In addition to the above, MailChimp has identified three words that generally get through SPAM filters but which for some reason, people don't like when it comes to opening emails: Help, Percent off (% off), and Reminder.

With this in mind, here are two subject lines from MailChimp's research.  The first received open rate of less than 1%, the second an open rate of over 90%:


Subject: Final reminder for complimentary entry to attend the West Freelands BCI Cluster Conference 2006


Subject: Your April Website Stats

5. Localize but don't personalize. According to MailChimp again, people tend to open emails that have a Subject Line that refers to the city or town in which the recipient lives.  However, they tend to ignore Subject Lines that contain the prospect's name.

It's not hard to see why.  Everybody knows that your emailing programs will insert the recipient's name anywhere you like.  However, inserting the location is less common and implies that that the source of the email is local.


Subject: John, are you ready for the new year?


Subject: Reach decision-makers in St. Louis.

6. Have content that delivers the goods. Recipients tend to ignore emails from people they don't know and read emails from they know (or know of).  That's why you'll get a much higher open rate if you're emailing current customers, former customers or people who've "signed up" to get emails from you.

This is not to say that generating email lists from online sources (like LinkedIn) doesn't work, but only that your emails will have a much lower open rate.

However, regardless of how you found the email address, once the recipient has gotten an email from you and opened it, the recipient will decide whether or not it's worthwhile to open any future emails you send.

If you've got a fantastic Subject Line but the contents stink, you're just going to irritate the recipient.  It's like unwrapping a package with a beautiful bow that turns out to contain a box of crap. People remember that.

On the other hand, if your email contains got great content, there's a good chance that the recipient will open future sales emails, even if the Subject Line isn't fabulous.

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